For goodness sake, I don't know what I'm doing in here with all these football factories. At Princeton, we don't even call it Homecoming. Listen, Homecoming is entirely too Midwestern. You see, we don't emphasize football. But never mind. Each fall one game is played at Princeton that stirs the alumni—the Yale game or the Harvard game, depending on which "Big Three" rival we're playing at home that year. Believe it or not, some Americans still consider Harvard, Yale and Princeton as the Big Three, even when it comes to football. Anyway, whenever anybody refers to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, they always do it in that order. We Princetonians know in our hearts that the rest of the world thinks of us as No. 3, and that has always provided us with a greater incentive to try and show up the Harvards and the Yalies between the sideline stripes.
In the olden days, like when I was a student, we used to succeed at this regularly, too, and proud alumni would come in station wagons and special trains from near and far to watch the Tiger grid juggernaut roll. Hey, we played a single wing. A single wing! And we stuck it to all those pantywaist Tea formations. Each week: Kazmaier, Flippin, Sachs, Iacavazzi, some new Tiger star running wild, Palmer Stadium packed, alumni all rising at the end, holding their hats to their hearts, waving and singing Old Nassau. There was also still a lot of to-do about F. Scott Fitzgerald having gone to Princeton. You could cut the atmosphere with a bread knife.
Nowadays, I can't imagine why anybody in his right mind would go back to Old Nassau for a football game. Ever since they let girls in the school, the football team has gone all to hell. We haven't had a winning season since 1970, and it is an even more depressing fact that we haven't beat Yale since 1967. In many parts of India, children have been conceived, born, betrothed and married without ever knowing of a Princeton victory o'er Yale. Oh, sure, don't get me wrong, I'll be the first to admit there are more important things in life than football, but also, look, if I had wanted the Nebraska experience, I would have become a thresher.
Actually, none of this should be surprising inasmuch as the whole rationale for Princeton football has become superfluous. The idea of football games was a) to get the alumni back so they would get drunk and give more money, and b) give the students an excuse for what was called "importing" girls, there being none in the vicinity, except the ones at Rutgers, who didn't count. But now that they have girls on campus, b) is eliminated, and the alumni—a large portion of whom are still debating the merits of the Missouri Compromise—won't give money because they are furious that today's Princeton students have girls around when they didn't. And, listen, all kidding aside, even if we had only the third-best education in Megalopolis, we should come away from Princeton with some smarts. If there is one thing you learn with a Princeton education, it is don't waste a trip back to the Garden State to watch a rinky-dink Ivy League game—especially if you never win. We don't even beat Brown anymore; imagine that.
October 21, 1979
As a consequence, when I arrived back at Princeton one gorgeous autumn Saturday last year, everybody was so old. Apparently, the only alumni who still watch the Ivy League are so ancient they have not yet got the news about the pros. They will pay $7 a pop to watch the Big Three (sic) thrash about, But I saw many advertisements about The Friends of Princeton Football having a meeting, so I went there. Unfortunately, the room was empty. There was a great spread of coffee and juice and pastry, but nary one F. of P.F.
So, I made like Goldilocks for a while, and when I was filled I found a passerby in the hall and asked him were there no more Friends of Princeton Football (not counting the teams that play us), and he said whereas there wasn't but a corporal's guard, the Friends were not extinct altogether and had gone out to watch the Harvard-Princeton freshman game.
I grabbed a take-out pastry and went to see that game. Harvard and Princeton tied, 13 all, but I don't want to dwell on that, because, as you know, nowadays a tie is like kissing your sibling.
Now for the nostalgia highlight of this saga. As I was leaving the freshman game, I met William Lippincott, who was the dean of students when I was an undergraduate. He kicked me out twice, the second time being a bum rap, a real Star Chamber. But, as I told the dean on this occasion, let bygones be bygones, that is my motto. Besides, in those days you could get kicked out for so many things. There was a plethora of rules. You had to go to church, go to classes, do school-work; great impositions were placed on students in those days.
I had a roommate who played five-card stud as his major, and when he got kicked out the one time with me, the dean said: "Well, Mr. C—, I see you are already on scholastic probation, and on chapel probation and on cut probation, and when you come back from your suspension—you're a cardplayer, aren't you, Mr. C—?—well, I'm going to put you on disciplinary probation so that you'll have the only full house on campus." As you can see, Dean Lippincott was a man who loved his work, and so he and I cut up about the old times, and, to be perfectly honest, I was really delighted that he recognized me, because it would have left me empty if a guy who kicked me out didn't even remember me.
I went up Prospect Street then, past where all the social clubs are, into the middle of the campus, where the band was...what? Mobilizing? Fomenting? The Princeton band is much the best thing about Princeton football. It might have been even when we could beat Brown. The band marches in straggly lines and sort of forms clever halftime items, like the occasion when ABC was televising a Princeton game (no, I don't know why), and the band spelled out ABC, and as soon as the cameras turned on the field, the band switched the A to an N. The band may be running a little short on double entendres, but it retains the right attitude.
You see, there is an oppressive self-consciousness to Ivy League football. In the game programs, they always make a big fuss about printing what the players major in right alongside what position they play. While the crew can row all year, spring football is taboo because football is not emphasized. But, of course, Princeton still claims to be a major-college Division I-A NCAA team, it hustles tickets, and it fires its coaches just about as regularly as the San Diego Chargers do. And the trouble is that beneath this smug administrative double standard of the Ivies there are people just as involved, people who work and care about a won-lost record just as much as they do in Norman, Oklahoma. Only they are never permitted to admit that football can matter. More platitudes are mouthed about the importance of higher education in behalf of Ivy League football than in behalf of higher education. So it is all very maddening and hypo-critical, and it is why the sensible young alumni go see the pros and root for them, because there they can be honest about caring. Ivy League football fans have the same frustrations competitively as the Victorians did sexually.
But the band laughs. I walked along with it for a while. They played the Dead March from Saul as they hove into Palmer Stadium. I talked to the two students who accompany the band, dressed up as the team's striped mascots, Peter Maritz and Lynn Stout, respectively your Tiger and Tigerette. Lynn said it was not all that bad being a mascot for an inveterate loser because, "this way, when you get one or two victories, they mean more." I thought that was sweet.
Lynn and Peter romped around during the game, and the cheerleaders also did their best. There is no demand for pep rallies or bonfires anymore, and the cheerleaders told me that the students are just plain out of practice when it comes to cheering. Also, they can see it does no good. The best cheerers, the only real cheerers, are the ones who come in a group and get drunk. The cheerleaders said the boys from Tiger Inn, one of the eating clubs, were best at this. But I didn't hear a bloody soul cheer when the cheerleaders tried, "Let's go, big team, let's go." Neither did "M—O—V—E, move that ball" strike any sparks in the stands, although a fight cheer—spelled out "F—I—G—T"—got some mumbles. Well, what the H....
But lo and behold, the team played like a T—E—A—M. The Tigers have an edge going in against Harvard, because the Cantabs never care that much about playing Princeton; that is the way it is when you never hear Princeton, Yale, Harvard in that particular order. So, even when we can't beat Brown anymore, we can beat Harvard, and on this magnificent Indian summer day the 17,500 die-hards who had come out began to dare to dream of Princeton's first Ivy victory of the year. Hadn't the freshmen actually tied an opponent?
At the end of the first half we led 14-3, and there was a sophomore back named Cris Crissy, known as the Penn Yan Express because he was reared in Penn Yan, N.Y., who was running handoffs and catching passes all over, and I got very excited because I thought I had discovered the Penn Yan Express, and for a moment there I was going to call up Herman Weiskopf, who writes "Football's Week" for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and tip him off to this find of mine, advising Herman to make the Penn Yan Express "Back of the Week"—we'd scoop the wire services!—but in the second half the Penn Yan Express got double coverage and whatnot, and he tailed off some. Also, the Harvards scored 21 points in less than five minutes.
But you know what? The Tigers did not go belly up. I would say that maybe the worm had finally turned except that Yale stomped on Princeton again two weeks later. But at least the Tigers came back against the John Harvards. There were assorted Princeton pyrotechnics and heroics, a stalwart goal-line stand, and, at the end, a 24-24 tie. To be sure, this added up to a lot of disappointing sister-kissing this day in Tigertown, but if you, like Princeton football, hadn't been loved by anybody for years, you too would be grateful for whatever small amatory favors ties bestow.
After the game I talked to the Penn Yan Express, and he said that for the first time at Princeton "I could feel tradition out there today." I thought that was nice. And then I went back to my old club and had a couple beers, but all of a sudden, just like that, I wanted to get out of there, out of the "Homecoming," because I felt a little sad about it all. It suddenly occurred to me that of all the things they do at Princeton, they probably play football the worst of all. They're a losing team in a second-rate Eastern league. Why would I return for that? If I'm coming back—hey, let me see something with emphasis.
Football is far more out of whack at Princeton than it is at places like Miami and Notre Dame, because those schools emphasize other things too: they are honest enough to put themselves on the line, admit they care and try to be the best—the way Princeton does in all other endeavors. I'll return for my next Princeton football game when the Tigers are in the Top 10 or when they stop selling tickets and play it just for fun. But then again, maybe you really can't Homecome again. You can't for a loser, anyhow. I know that now.